Monday, January 08, 2007

Animations at the Start of the New Century

Walt Disney Pictures was very busy in the year 2000, releasing the computer-animated Dinosaur (2000) about prehistoric life, and the hand-drawn animated comedy-adventure The Emperor's New Groove (2000). DreamWorks also released its second feature-length animated film The Road to El Dorado (2000) (loosely based on The Man Who Would Be King (1975)), and Fox produced the visually-striking science fiction epic Titan A.E. (2000) combining classic animation and CGI (before closing down its traditional animation division).
The second collaboration of DreamWorks and PDI was for the immensely successful (the box-office champ of 2001 and the first Best Animated Feature Film Oscar winner) and colorful fairy-tale farce Shrek (2001), a computer-animated film that added elements to CGI such as fire, liquids, digital humans, and clothing, and featured a green, swamp-living, misfit ogre (with voice of Mike Myers). The most talked-about (but commercially unsuccessful) computer-animated film of the early 21st century, however, was Sony's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), a photo-realistic (hyperReal), science-fiction tale by director Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator of the interactive, role-playing, futuristic video game) that advertised itself as "Fantasy Becomes Reality." It simulated human actors with CG and was the first computer-generated feature film based entirely on original designs - no real locations, people, vehicles, or props were used.

Kaena: The Prophecy (2004), the first full-length 3D-generated animated film from France, with voices of Kirsten Dunst, Richard Harris, and Anjelica Huston, told a sci-fi fantasy tale about a free-spirited teenaged girl who must solve the mystery of a dying 100-mile tall tree. Writer/director Kerry Conran's feature film debut, the retro-futuristic sci-fi adventure film set in the late-1930s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) was the first live-action studio release in which every scene was at least partly computer-generated - supplemented with human actors (including Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow). The entire special-effects laden movie was shot against blue/green screens with human actors in front.
Similar in sheer creative inventiveness was the ground-breaking Waking Life (2001), an impressionistic and stylized R-rated film from director Richard Linklater - it was first digitally shot as a live-action film before 30 artists graphically 'painted' the characters via computer (with a process called "interpolated rotoscoping") to create the illusion of a cartoon in motion.
[Similarly, Sin City (2005) and Linklater's own A Scanner Darkly (2005) digitally rotoscoped live action.] Also, Paramount's Nickelodeon films introduced a totally-original computer-animated feature starring a whiz kid who saves his alien-kidnapped parents, titled Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2001). And Warner Bros.' poorly-received summer release, Osmosis Jones (2001), with part live-action and part-animation, was about a white blood cell cop (voice of Chris Rock) who hunted down lethal germs in a zoo-worker's (Bill Murray) body.

Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), its first cartoon produced in 70 mm since The Black Cauldron (1985), blended CGI with traditional hand-drawn animation, and was based on the Jules Verne action epic, but it faced stiff competition from other animated features. Disney's hand-drawn, big-budget, sci-fi animation Treasure Planet (2002), an outer-space version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, flopped. Another Disney hand-drawn effort, Lilo & Stitch (2002), about a lonely Hawaiian girl and her blue extra-terrestrial friend, was the studio's sole box-office hit in recent memory.

The widely-anticipated Monsters, Inc. (2001), Disney's fourth computer-animated comedy with Pixar, featured a one-eyed, lime-colored ball named Mike Wazowski (with voice of Billy Crystal), and his scare-factory buddy James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (voice of John Goodman).

20th Century Fox's animation-adventure Ice Age (2002) starred creatures that are trying to reunite a human baby with its parents. The computer-generated characters include Manny - a woolly mammoth (voice of Ray Romano), Sid - a talkative sloth (voice of John Leguizamo), Diego - a saber-toothed tiger (voice of Denis Leary), along with Scrat - a prehistoric squirrel that desperately tries to stash an acorn. [It was followed by a sequel Ice Age 2: The Meltdown (2006).] The second film from the same team was Robots (2005), a slapstick, science-fiction animated film about clunky, nuts-and-bolts androids featuring Robin Williams (his first voice in an animated feature since 1992) as the voice of Fender.

Due to pressures brought to bear on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the reknowned organization finally acknowledged that full-length cartoons (animations!) deserve their own Oscar awards category, Best Animated Feature Film, beginning with films eligible in the year 2001. According to the Academy's rules, an 'animated film' must be at least 70 minutes in length, have a significant amount of major animated characters, and be at least 75% animated.
The wildly-successful Finding Nemo (2003) - the highest-grossing computer-animated film ever (to date), Pixar's and Disney's fifth collaboration, won the Best Animated Film Oscar! The undisputed box-office champ of the year, it was the tale of Marlin - a widowed clown fish's (voice by Albert Brooks) search in the Pacific Ocean, with a dopey and forgetful blue tang fish named Dory (voice by Ellen DeGeneres), for missing son Nemo with a withered fin. [It faced stiff competition from the wildly inventive and surreal French animated film The Triplets of Belleville (2003).] DreamWorks' version of Finding Nemo with an underwater gangster theme, the studio's first CGI-animated film, was the successful Shark Tale (2004), with voices provided by Will Smith, Renee Zellweger, Jack Black, Robert DeNiro and Angelina Jolie.

Director/screenwriter Brad Bird's ingenious Oscar-winning Best Animated Feature, the action-adventure The Incredibles (2004), Disney's and Pixar's sixth collaboration, was Pixar's first PG-rated film and the longest CG animated film to date (at 115 minutes). It told the tale of paunchy Bob "Mr. Incredible" Parr (voice of Craig T. Nelson), an ex-do-good Superhero suffering a mid-life crisis and living under-cover in suburbia, with his restless wife Helen (voice of Holly Hunter) - former rubber-limbed masked vigilante Elastigirl. Their children included long-haired daughter Violet (voice of Sarah Vowell) - capable of being invisible, son Dash (voice of Spencer Fox) - who could travel at supersonic speed, and baby Jack-Jack. The entire family was lured back into super-herodom against the evil Syndrome (voice of Jason Lee). With its four Oscar nominations (including Best Animated Feature Film), it was the most-nominated animated film since Aladdin (1992) (with five nominations). Another Pixar CGI marvel, the adventure comedy Cars (2006), directed by John Lasseter, told an anthropomorphic story about a stock-car (Lightning McQueen, voice of Owen Wilson) on a journey to the races - including nostalgia for Route 66 in a forgotten town called Radiator Springs.

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